Friday, February 18, 2011

North Thailand's Khao Soi: Falling In Love With Chiang Mai's Street Food

I am writing this as I wait to board a plane back to Bangkok after spending eight days in Chiang Mai chatting to monks, visiting temples and narrowly avoiding becoming a Buddhist. Oh, and eating. I’ve been doing lots of that.

I thought about heading north up to the sleepy Mekong River towns of Chiang Rai Province and the famed Sukhothai ruins, but I thought the food wouldn’t change too much, and would be disappointing compared to northern Thailand’s gastronomic capital.

I wanted to leave the north’s most famous dish – khao soi – to last. And I wanted to order it in what most locals agree is the best restaurant to try it in – the Thai Muslim-run Sophia restaurant tucked away in a back alley near the night bazaar. But both times I cycled there, they had run out.

Instead, I tried posh and peasant versions in and around the walled city, and I have to say the latter won hands-down. There was something vital and hearty missing in the expensive restaurant offerings. They appeared too processed and precise.

Confusingly, khao soi comes with a range of spellings in different parts of Thailand – but means “cut rice” after the way the rice dough is traditionally steamed over a cloth and then rolled and cut into noodles. And there appear to be almost as many ways of making it too.

Mostly, the seasonings are already mixed in – and that is the way it is served in the city’s Night Bazaar food centre.

But look carefully and you can get it the traditional way, where garnishes of pickled mustard greens, cucumber, and beans as well as chopped shallots, fried chillies, lime slivers and coriander are served separately and mixed in by the diner.

You also get a range of types: the usual contenders of chicken, prawn, pork and fish, and sometimes beef, and in one Chinese-Thai restaurant, I had frog khao soi, which was revolting. I won’t write about it further, or mention the elastic bands, because you might be about to eat.

Yet however it comes, the basic components of this Burmese-influenced meal are the same: crispy fried egg noodles on top of boiled noodles and meat or fish in a spicy coconut gravy, similar to a massaman curry sauce. You notice how sweet the sauce is when you taste it without the pickled vegetables, which are fiery hot and as sour as wormwood. Thais love their fermented vegetables and often order them as a side dish (which explains why so many have taken to roasted pork knuckle and sauerkraut served in German restaurants in Thailand).

But as chef @granthawthorne pointed out when he gave me some great food advice on the city, you get an explosion of flavour when the garnishes are mixed in - and it immediately takes away all the sweetness. The dish really comes alive and you can see what the fuss is about. Or as Gregg ‘The Egg’ Wallace (I can’t believe I’m missing Masterchef!) would say: “It grabs you by the ears and gives you a great big smack on the lips.” Presumably he’d be talking about a conventional kiss and not a Glasgow kiss, but both would be appropriate.

The steamed beef khao soi I had during the Sunday Walking Market, when roads are closed off and the town is filled with traders selling art and crafts from the local hill tribes, was the best of the lot.

It came with a pair of tongs and three plastic boxes of garnishes – containing pickled veg, limes and shallots.

The beef was incredible, but due to an appalling lack of my Thai and their English, I couldn’t get them to explain how they got chopped nuggets of shin that succulent and soft and so full of flavour. And the sauce was blisteringly hot – or at least it was when I stirred in a second helping of the soused green beans, cabbage and cucumber.

In the night market, I had another good peasant version of khao soi kai, with a honey chicken drumstick nestled on top. The gravy, with its turmeric and cardamom more beholden to Indian curries, was sublime and had a much deeper flavour than many thin, fragrant Thai sauces.

The pricier versions in restaurants are usually served with much thinner noodles, which to my mind aren’t as good, and are unnecessarily Westernised.

You get chicken breast rather than with bone – just as the tourists like it. But you are much better off going to a street food stall (when they haven’t sold out) and getting a superior dish for a fifth of the price. It’ll give you a much truer taste of Thailand. If you want to cook it, chef Shane Brierly (@chefshane) has a great step-by-step recipe with pics...CLICK HERE TO VIEW


Anonymous said...

What happened with the frog dish? Was t just frog legs? And where dod the eleastic bands come into it? sounds horrible.


@granthawthorne said...

(Via Twitter)

Cheers for the mention chef. And @chefshane for sharing the recipe. Duly saved for future use. Enjoy Bangkok.

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Anton,

It really would be wrong of me to talk about those elastic bands. I think those frogs deserve some dignity. Besides, I really can't bear to....oh dear...

@chefshane said...

Thanks for the mention. Loved your blog piece. You're making me jealous now :-(

meemalee said...

Hi Lennie, always lovely to read about Khao Soi, thanks!

Robyn Eckhardt of EatingAsia has a series of wonderful posts about Khao Soi that are also well worth reading :)

A small etymological note though - it's generally agreed that the name "khao soi" doesn't mean "cut rice", but is simply derived from the Burmese precursor ohn-no khao swè, which turned into "khao swè" and then "khao soi" (or "cow suey" - that's why there are so many variations in spelling).

Last point - the pickle is Shan pickle (Burmese name mohnyin tjin). The version you have pictured here in the white tupperware box is the classic version which is simply mustard greens - leaves and stalks chopped together (I make it myself). There are no beans, cucumbers or cabbage in this, though maybe you're referring to another dish, not pictured?

Sasapong Chujinda said...

Dear Alex

I'm just a Thai passerby. "Khao-Soi" is not rooted from cutting rice. Linguistics thought that this word come from "Khao-Swe" as Meemalee said.